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Henry Miller | Biography

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Childhood and Early Years

Henry Valentine Miller was born on December 26, 1891, in New York City, and was raised in Brooklyn. His father, originally from Germany, worked as a tailor. He wanted Miller to conform to his expectations, but Miller preferred the streets to his parents' idea of respectability. While he excelled in high school and was an avid reader—especially of adventure stories—Miller only went to college for two months, attending City College of New York. Disenchanted with the post-secondary educational system, Miller dropped out in 1909 to work in a variety of blue-collar jobs, including tailoring with his father and working for Western Union in their messaging department. All the while he continued to write. He married Beatrice Sylvas Wickens in 1917 and two years later had a daughter named Barbara.

Becoming a Writer

In 1923 Miller, who frequented dance halls, fell in love with a dancer, June Smith. He left his wife and daughter the next year to marry June, who began to use the name June Mansfield. June encouraged him to write, and Miller penned two novels, Clipped Wings and This Gentile World. They both went unpublished, while June supported the couple financially. After Miller and June returned to New York from Europe, he went back to Paris alone in 1930 to write. June kept him barely afloat by periodically sending him an allowance, but she was often in desperate financial straits herself. Miller occasionally found work as a proofreader or teacher, but he often fell into extreme poverty while in Paris.

Miller met the married writer Anaïs Nin in 1931, when he was writing Tropic of Cancer and living on the streets. Nin's husband, Hugh Guiler, accepted that his wife used his money to support young writers, and the two had an arrangement allowing them to (at least) stray emotionally from their marriage, though Nin strayed sexually as well. Nin thought Miller's writings deserved publication, and she and Miller became not just colleagues in writing sexually charged literature, but lovers. Nin also met Miller's wife June when June came to Paris to visit. Nin fell in love with June, and they had a short but intense affair while Nin stayed sexually involved with Miller, pushing the bounds of social norms at the time. Nin wrote about both Miller and June but later denied the love affair with June, although she wrote of her, "Her beauty drowned me ... Henry faded. She was color, brilliance, strangeness." When June returned to Europe again, she was no longer willing to put up with Miller's philandering and felt Nin had taken over as Miller's muse. June asked for a divorce, which was finalized in 1934.

The same year Tropic of Cancer was published in Paris. Because the novel features sexually explicit and vulgar language, Miller could not publish it in the United States or England, where it was banned. Miller's signature style combined autobiography and fiction written in stream-of-consciousness style. The novel hid nothing from the reader, alternately horrifying and thrilling readers and critics alike. Miller's novel Black Spring (1936) uses a similar freedom of expression to relate his adventures as a young boy in Brooklyn, visiting whorehouses and learning how to live by his wits.

Return to the United States

In 1939 Miller published Tropic of Capricorn in Paris and the prose collection, The Cosmological Eye, which was brought out by an American publisher, New Directions. He moved back to New York in 1940. In 1942 Miller moved to California. He married Janina Lepska, with whom he later had two children: Tony and Valentine. They settled in Big Sur in 1944. Miller, who had become an accomplished watercolorist, exhibited his artwork in gallery showings there. He continued to write, publishing several novels and autobiographical works over the next decade. These included The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) and Remember to Remember (1947). In 1953 Miller divorced Janina to marry Eve McClure. Over the next decade, he wrote several more novels and nonfiction books about writing and his life, and published correspondence between himself and a close friend, British novelist Lawrence Durrell.

Court Cases and Critics

In 1961 Grove Press finally published Tropic of Cancer in the United States, closely followed by Tropic of Capricorn. The reception of Tropic of Cancer was just as controversial in this second round of publication as it was when the Paris edition was published in 1934. This time, however, the press in the United States defended Miller. In addition, Grove assisted Miller in defending Tropic of Cancer in court against obscenity charges, which were leveled at him all over the country. While more conservative parts of the country continued to keep the book off the shelves of bookstores and libraries, the obscenity case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1964 the Supreme Court declared the book literature, not pornography.

Some critics hail Tropic of Cancer as one of the best and most important novels ever written, lauding Miller's exuberant, poetic language. However, feminist critics such as Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, and Jeannette Winterson have called Miller a sexist writer for portraying women only in terms of their bodies and their ability to sexually service men. Other critics note Miller's descriptions of Jewish people are less than flattering as well, though some of Miller's greatest champions were Jewish publishers. Miller told American novelist Erica Jong in 1974, when his views were being questioned, that he was definitively not anti-Semitic. Miller has also been criticized for being homophobic, using words like "fairies" to describe homosexual men, while other critics view aspects of Miller's work as thinly veiled homoeroticism.

Critics continue to argue about the place of Tropic of Cancer in the literary canon. Still, interest in Miller's work has not waned, and scholars continue to view the novel as an important contribution to American letters. Miller said his character in Tropic of Cancer does not mirror him exactly. Pointing out the differences between true autobiography and autobiographical fiction, he said, "You see, I created a monstrous character in my books and I gave him my name, Henry Miller. He's a demon, a rogue, a scoundrel ... It was mostly exaggeration and bravado, you see? That character was me and wasn't me. It is as if there are two Henry Millers."

The Later Years

Miller moved to Pacific Palisades, California, sharing custody of his two youngest children with Eve, whom he had divorced. He continued to write prolifically about life in the United States, often with a comic slant and always in provocative language. He also wrote about writers who had influenced him, especially the British novelist D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence's erotically charged fiction, particularly Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), faced similar battles with censorship. In addition, Miller continued to produce and exhibit watercolor paintings and silk screens. In 1967 Miller became obsessed with and married Los Angeles lounge performer Hoki Tokuda, who, at 29, was nearly five decades younger than he was. The marriage was platonic, or not sexual. Hoki and Miller divorced in 1978, the arrangement having been unsatisfying for them both. Miller lived alone and painted for the last few years of his life, and died on June 7, 1980. A literary luminary, Miller's work continues to inspire readers and writers who relish his bold style.

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